The best article I’ve read on Ebert’s response to “Are Games Art?”: An Apology for Roger Ebert. It is clear, it is elegant, and you don’t have to ‘buy’ it to see that the negative argument can exist in the absence of curmudgeonly ignorance.
There’s no need to delay my answer to the question, especially since the answer is not very satisfying anyway.
“Are Games Art?” is a poorly posed question, and I agree with those who have suggested that art is actually a subset of play.
I do not want to see a Citizen Kane of games. The comparison is meant to refer to some kind of flowering of the form but the analogy can spawn some muddled thought. Show me a Soccer of books. Show me a Go of movies. Show me a Sim City of paintings. Those are all affecting, effective, brilliant artifacts in their own right. They are not each other. Nor are all books, movies, and paintings obviously in a class all together (or among themselves).
Also, a big part of what made Citizen Kane Citizen Kane is the ascension of the movie critic- Kane was a generally liked by local critics when it was released, but it did not perform well at the box office and was not beatified until a decade later, due partially to influential European writers (the movie was not seen much in Europe until after WWII), and also due to RKO selling its library for use on television, increasing the number of Americans who would see this film the European intellectuals were calling the crown of American cinema. This is notable, but I’m not interested in veering into talk of videogame criticism at this time.
I’d argue (and I’m not the first) that the want to designate videogames as High Art is a shibboleth, a signal that you are of a certain group. You’re looking to elevate an activity you engage in. This is sensible. A pot smoker who is in favor of his own persecution is either confused or an asshole. Brooks.
Not that I don’t sympathize with the impulse to elevate the medium- videogames do mean a lot to me. In some of my personal narratives I see different phases of my life as associated with my relation to games as a consumer and a producer.
But the same tribe that celebrates when museums accept games generally doesn’t acknowledge what the museum accepted just yesterday and what they’ll accept tomorrow. Ant hills. Ready-made furniture. Sleeping people. None of these artifacts have been necessarily elevated by their admission into the buildings where we pay to look at things and think about them and their histories and their meaning and their relations to us.
Imaginary Games starts with this idea that art is a subset of games: dancing through various philosopher’s definition of games, finding itself accepting a familiar exploratory/imaginative definition of play, and then starting over with art and placing it as a sort of empathetic/imaginative/social exercise, and making the connection between High Art and Mimicry as Caillois would call it.
And that’s only where the book starts. Bateman applies Kendall Walton’s thesis from Mimesis as Make-Believe and applies it to videogames: he speaks of the use of make-believe, “props”, and “dolls” and the importance of these kinds of abstract representations to human thought and experience. As it turns out, Imaginary Games is intended as the first book of a loose trilogy- the other two, The Mythology of Evolution and Chaos Ethics, do not pretend to be about games at all. The theme between the three is the connection between fiction and perception.
Bateman references Half-Real, where Jesper Juul makes the argument that games are real in the sense that obeying rules and winning a game is an actual event, and fictional in the sense that the dragon that you slayed (an event) was not itself an actual thing. This is usually treated as the concluding thought to a decade-long split in game studies usually defined as “narratologists vs ludologists”, wherein the two tribes had distinct views of what games are and what the proper methods were to study them. Games can be a set of rules and a series of fictions.
Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe and subsequent works sound pretty interesting and worth a dive sometime. The concept of quasi-emotion that Bateman brought up was interesting: being scared at a horror movie has some effect on us, but that effect is not actually fear, since actual fear would predicate some action to mitigate the apparent aversion (leave the theater, call the cops). It is a semantic confusion to call this sensation fear the same way as fear in the wild. “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” It is fictional fear, actually felt. It is not a lesser phenomenon by being quasi, though.
Another useful construct: there are two ways to relate to a representation- as an onlooker, observing from the outside (like an usher at the movie theater watching moviewatchers, or a nontheist in a church) and as a participant, a “prop, object, and imaginer all three”. Art is participatory. The movie is participatory. The darkness of the theatre is for your privacy so that you can enjoy your private game of Mimicry (or maybe even Ilynx). This framework also allows us to better understand why representation is almost as important as gameplay. Monopoly could be played with less elaborate props but it would be less enjoyable. Games with similar rules but distinct representations can provide distinct experiences. The theory and vocabulary of props comes from Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe again.
Another great word: keyfabe, the deliberate, maintained illusion in America that pro-wrestling is not fake. “A great many people in the United States were wither not aware that pro wrestling was staged, or else entered into willing suspension of disbelief in respect of it.” A related phenomenon might occur when fans treat actors as the characters that they portray. Wrestling is a kind of theater, which is a kind of representation, a kind of play.
The question is raised whether play is ‘real’ or what that means. The Rules of Play people see games as a new reality imposed on top of our ordinary lives. Jesper Juul sees games as “half-real”. Ian Bogost has a flat-ontology inspired answer (that I ought to, but don’t, know much about yet). As Castronova points out, you can call the World Cup silly, but don’t call it that at a pub. The game has consequences. It means something to someone.
There is no such thing as “virtual reality”- all reality is virtual. The phrase was coined in the 30’s, relating to theater. There are only inherited and synthetic realities, differentiated by how they appear to us. I’ll skip the rest of the ontology and ethics for the time being.
Some quotes from Bateman’s website on Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe.
Propositions, that is, statements about the world, are usually taken to be either true or false. It is true that you are reading my blog, for instance, and false that I am immortal. However, in the case of representations thinking in terms of ‘true’ and ‘false’ can be misleading – Walton proposes instead that we think of the propositions associated with representations as being ascribed fictionality, which he sees as a “prescription to imagine”. Thus just as belief aims at the true in our conventional understanding of truth, imagining aims at the fictional: “What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.”
Any given fictional proposition can be seen as a fictional truth, and collectively these form fictional worlds. We are familiar with the idea, for instance, that the episodes of Star Trek constitute a fictional world, but in Walton’s theory every representation has a corresponding fictional world: the Mona Lisa prescribes a fictional world in which it is true that a women with no eyebrows has an enigmatic smile. What’s more, while any given work has its own fictional world (the work world), every appreciator enters their own fictional world when they appreciate that work.
Thus when I look at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre I enter into a fictional world where, if I am playing what Walton would term an authorised game, I see a woman with no eyebrows and an enigmatic smile. It may be fictional in the world of my game that the woman belongs to an alien species which lacks eyebrows – that is a matter for my imagination – but this proposition can only belong to the fictional world of my game: it is not fictional to the work world of the Mona Lisa that she is an alien.
What constitutes a prop? Any and all representations count as props in Walton’s system, and as a result the boundaries of the term are relatively soft. For instance, when watching a play, one views many different props – including the furniture and objects on stage (things already termed ‘a prop’), the backdrop painting, and even the actors and actresses themselves. When one watches a movie, one could consider the film to be a prop, or comprised of many props. It is unnecessary to distinguish between these states of affairs in order to use the make-believe theory.
What is important is not which objects are ascribed the role of prop, but that props are generators of fictional truths – things that by their very nature render certain propositions fictional. A child’s doll of an infant makes it fictional that there is a baby present, so if a loutish child kicks such a doll it is fictional that they have kicked a baby, which is to say that it is prescribed that any observer imagines that a baby has been kicked. Props generate their fictional truths irrespective of what is or isn’t imagined, but they cannot do so on their own: there must be a person or people to imagine, and thus props function primarily in a social context.
If we can imagine more or less anything, how can it be that representations must be understood at a social level? It is for precisely the same reason that Wittgenstein advocates understanding language as socially embedded, and consequently denies the meaningfulness of a ‘private language’. We learn to interpret certain kinds of representations just as we learn to speak a language – and we learn both these skills from the people around us, although this is not to say that all interpretation of representations is learned. This seems surprising, and intuitively we might suspect that we would always be able to interpret a picture of a mouse as representing a mouse. In fact, anthropologists have found tribes who lack this form of representation in their culture, and they are incapable of interpreting such a drawing without some instruction.
Furthermore, social elements are involved in the authorisation of the games that are played with particular props. Walton notes:
…dolls and toy trucks are meant to be not just props but props in games of certain kinds, ones in which they generate certain sorts of fictional truths: dolls are intended to “count as” babies and toy trucks as trucks. I will call games of the kind a given prop has the function of serving in authorized ones for it.
Thus, for instance, nothing stops us imagining that a baby doll is a murderous robot but the fictional world of the game where we make-believe this is so is not authorised for the doll: the only (socially) authorised games for dolls of this kind are those in which it is fictional that the doll stands for a baby.